EVERYONE IN SONAR SHARES A COMMON GOAL:
Disproving the notion that everything that could ever
be done with music has been done. The Swiss quartet’s
minimalist-groove compositions on its second
release Static Motion [Cuneiform] were designed to
break new ground by invoking a series of carefully
architected rules and processes. The band’s system
manifests itself in a pattern-based approach that relies
on concepts of negative space and iterative rhythmic
progressions, and its sound traverses prog-rock, new
music, ambient, and funk.
Founder and guitarist Stephan Thelen came up with
several key principles to encourage the band—which is
also comprised of guitarist Bernhard Wagner, bassist
Christian Kuntner, and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli—
to work on a blank canvas. The environment was one
in which anything could happen, and the limitations
of traditional music forms were willingly abandoned.
For example, the band agreed to avoid conventional
major/minor harmonies, and concentrate on tritone
harmonics. Routine 4/4 beats were outlawed, while
polyrhythms and isorhythms were celebrated. Soloing
and intentional virtuosity were jettisoned in favor of
What is Sonar’s mission?
Thelen: To fuse a minimal aesthetic with the visceral
power and dynamic range of a progressive rock
band. Minimal music—especially the early music of
Steve Reich—is a great influence on all of us. The minimal
approach of doing as much as you can with as
little material as possible still seems to me to be one
of the best principles for a satisfying composition. The
combination of repetitive minimal music with groove-based
styles like funk and jazz appealed to us as a way
to create adventurous rock music.
We also knew we wanted a new and unique sound that
would set us apart. Partly inspired by Glenn Branca’s
music, I created a new tuning in which the guitar is
tuned to tritones—C-F#, C-F#, C-F#. We tried it out and
never looked back. We all loved the natural harmonics
of the tuning, and decided to go one step further and
play as much as possible only using these harmonics.
That led us to a whole new harmonic system that we
call “tritone harmonics,” and that has a
rather dark, mysterious, and strangely
addictive timbre totally unlike anything
you could create with conventional major
or minor harmonies.
How do you collectively determine
the duration of a groove before a change
Thelen: Because our music is concept-
based, there is sometimes a conflict
between a theoretical idea and its
practical realization. For instance, if a
groove consists of three different simultaneous
rhythms, let’s say 3/4, 4/4 and
5/4, as in “Landslide,” it takes a rather
long time—in this case 60/4, the least
common multiplier—until the first beat
of all three rhythms coincide, and the
whole cycle is completed. Sometimes, this
can feel too long, and we are tempted to trim the
length of the groove. There are often discussions
about how true to an idea we should stick. The question we often ask ourselves is, “What’s
more important—to be true to an objective
idea, or follow your subjective intuition?”
Echolocation—Sonar (from left): Manuel Pasquinelli, Stephan Thelen, Bernhard Wagner, and Christian Kuntner.
Take us through your signal chains.
Thelen: Our goal is to have as little gear
as possible—not only for practical reasons,
but also as a philosophical statement. In a
live context, I use a Steinberger GM with a
custom body. It’s a very good, light guitar
with a fast neck and excellent hardware. It
stays in tune and is perfect for travelling
because it’s rather small. The pickups are
Gibson 490R and 490T Humbuckers. It has
an Alder Les Paul Custom-style body made
by Swiss luthier Matthias Wolfensberger. I
plug it straight into a Dunlop DVP1 volume
pedal and a Strymon blueSky Reverberator.
Next, the signal goes into a Fender Mustang
III amp. In the studio, we go straight into a
Line 6 Pod HD.
Wagner: I use a 1970s Japanese Luxor
Telecaster copy. I replaced both pickups
with Kinman 60’s Custom Set pickups, and
I changed the treble pot to a Shadow SH
124-500 kill pot. Apart from that, my signal
chain is identical to Stephan’s. Our joint aim
is to expose the differences in our playing as
clearly as possible. For example, the different
angles our picks hit the strings. These
subtle differences are more discernible with
as similar a signal chain as possible.
Describe how your minimalist concept
extends to the realm of effects.
Thelen: I used to have dozens of effects,
and I always bought the newest gadgets—
until I realized that true musical innovation
is in the mind, in the heart, and in the hands
of the player, not in the technology. There
was a point where I had so many effects
onstage that I couldn’t fully concentrate on
the music, because I was constantly thinking
about my gear. I decided I had to pare it
down to the basics so that I could again give
the music my fullest attention.
Wagner: It’s part of the sound concept
of Sonar to only use reverb. I’m very happy
with this choice, because it reminds and
encourages me to experiment with different
sound qualities obtainable only by different
playing techniques. For instance, I’ve
started choosing guitar picks specific to the
pieces we play. Some of them require a lot of
harmonics, where I use a pick with pointed
tips that I sharpened by clipping material off
using scissors. Also, where you pick the string
along its length makes a big sonic difference.
Another aspect involves playing harmonics.
Usually, you aim for maximum sustain,
but at the end of “Triptych,” we’re looking
for the sound of a clock slowing down—in
other words, short, metallic sounds. Staccato notes on the guitar are usually achieved by
damping with either the right or left hand.
But in our context, damping also involves
removing the higher frequencies, so the technique
is to place the left hand slightly off the
ideal spot on the fretboard.
How do you work together for the benefit
of the music?
Thelen: We often think very hard about
how to make to the music more interesting
in a structural, three-dimensional kind
of way. For instance in “Twofold Covering,”
there is a pattern of ten chords over two bars
of 11/8, during which we decided to circulate
the chords. I play the first chord, Bernhard
the second, and so on. That idea didn’t
change any notes in the composition, but it
radically changes the way the audience perceives
the music, because it’s much more
exciting when the chords jump back and
forth in space.
Wagner: Stephan and I have been playing
together for a few years now, and we have a
similar approach when it comes to rhythm.
On the other hand, regarding playing styles,
Stephan is more rock-oriented, while I have
more of a funk background. Our different
stylistic backgrounds lead to slightly different
sonic approaches which complement
each other well, particularly when we play
unison or interlocking parts.
How do you stay out of each other’s way?
Thelen: That’s never been a problem or
a concern. We have more or less the same
sound, and we actually want to sound like
one big stereo guitar where Bernhard is on
the left and I’m on the right. The stereo
division is a geometric concept that is really
important to me. I don’t think Sonar’s music
would work in mono.
Wagner: Everyone in Sonar has a good
sense for orchestration. So, when someone
comes up with an idea, the other band members
will quickly find the regions in the sonic,
tonal, and rhythmic spectrum that support
the idea. Also, many of the ideas come with
clearly-defined parts that don’t contradict or
undermine each other.
What’s your perspective on how pattern-
based music affects the perceptions
Wagner: We realize it’s raining when the
first raindrops fall. We either pay attention to,
or ignore the ongoing rain, but any change in
its pattern is immediately noticeable. Patternbased
music has a similar effect. Once we’re
accustomed to a pattern, we surf on it and
become very aware of even subtle changes.
So, listeners can’t help but be drawn into
alternating sections of repose and alertness.
Thelen: Gradually evolving, pattern-based
music gives the listener a much more active
and liberating role in the ritual of performing
music. It’s not about being passively
entertained, about personal feelings, or
about admiring musicians with great technical
abilities. It’s about players and listeners
being together in the same space and at
the same moment in time, standing in awe
of the seemingly infinite power of music, and
working together to gradually create something
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